How to Take Control When Searching for Affordable Colleges

How to Take Control When Searching for Affordable Colleges

Colleges have choices about how to spend their money, and you have choices about how to spend yours.

In order to gain control of the admissions game, it’s important to fully research your school options before you apply.

Merit scholarships can help with the costs, and there are many opportunities to find them. Still, most people don’t take the time to research the costs, merit scholarship availability,  and their own finances.

By not doing research, there’s a strong possibility you’re setting your child up for disappointment later–acceptance letters may come in, but often without the aid needed to make their dream a reality.

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We asked Road2College founder Debbie Schwartz, an expert in personal finance and analysis and a parent who is navigating college admissions and paying for college, for her advice on how a student can take back control.


Understand the Admissions Process

It’s important, she says, to recognize “that the admissions process is designed so that colleges have more information about you and your student than you have about them.” But don’t let this discourage you. Instead, “Let this empower you to ask questions and do your research.”

Talk Money

Although financial conversations aren’t always easy, they’re vital to developing realistic higher-education goals. So be sure to have the conversation upfront (long before the application process) about what you can and can’t afford. 

Be Strategic: Make a Broad List, Then Whittle It Down 

The schools on this list will help you determine whether or not you can afford what each college costs, and whether you’ll need to take out loans. Making the list is the most important part of this whole process.

You can’t get money from a school you don’t apply to. 

Try College Insights

To start your conversation and your list, try our College Insights tool. It will help you whittle down your initial ideas to become more realistic, as well as provide some schools you may never have heard of or considered. 

The information in the tool is compiled from multiple sources, one of which is the Common Data Set. Although the Data Set is published by many colleges (but not all) on their websites, there’s been no easy way, or central place, to search, sort, and filter, until now. 

Just enter your student’s stats and preferences and the tool will quickly indicate the schools where your student is likely to receive merit scholarships and/or need-based aid. 

College Insights also breaks down admissions rates into ED (early decision)/EA (early action), as well as regular admissions, along with the percentage of the class admitted through ED.

Other sites only provide the overall admission rates, which blend everything together. 

In addition, you can sort by which schools are FAFSA only, which schools have honors programs and co-ops, and which schools include data on the average debt of graduates. 

Research How Colleges Give Out Money, and How the Government Can Help

Schwartz says you need to know how colleges give out money in general–both need-based and merit scholarships.

And specifically: the financial-aid history of the colleges you’re interested in; how the government determines what your family is expected to pay for college (EFC); and what money is available to borrow from the government.

Research Your Own Financial Options: What Can You Afford?

Before deciding how to spend your money, make sure you know how much you can spend. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Are you willing to go into debt? If so, what are your limits? If not, where can your student attend debt free?
  • What factors are you willing to go into debt for? Will those factors pay back after graduation?  For example: brand recognition, a strong alumni network, job opportunities, the school is a very good fit, etc.
  • Just because you are willing and able to pay back loans, is it the right thing for you and your family?
  • Is your student willing to make sacrifices to pay back his/her debt? Such as: living at home for a few years during school and/or post graduation, working while in school, working over  school breaks and summers.
  • Is the decision about where to attend an emotional one more than a practical one? Can you and your student separate the two?
  • Would you consider options other than a traditional four-year program? By planning ahead you can do some research and look for less expensive local, two-year colleges to start, consider taking a gap year to earn money, etc.

Look for Information That May Not Be Formally Shared Online

In addition to information you can easily access, here are some things Schwartz suggests you reach out to schools to ask:

  1. Are there different acceptance rates for different majors? This will give you a better perspective of your student’s odds of being accepted. Most schools just list their overall acceptance rates.
  2. How does the career services office help with internships and recruiting? A strong program will aid in providing your child with opportunities to gain valuable work experience.
  3. What percentage of students in your child’s preferred major are employed post-graduation, and where?
  4. Which companies show up to recruit at school job fairs?
  5. Where do the majority of alumni live, and is the alumni network strongest in-state or nationally? This can be very helpful as your student opens up their job search and looks for the right place for them to live and work.

Once Accepted, You Can Ask for More Money

An offer is not set in stone. Once you get one, you can further take control by asking for more scholarship money. Here’s how to go about doing that:

Share your information in our Road2College Compare College Offers tool. Then, you can see what other students at the same school received (along with their stats).

We have over 7000 offers listed from the past two years. This will help you know how much more is fair to ask for.

Some schools have a form online that guides you through the appeal process.You can also try SwiftStudent if your family’s financial situation has changed since you first applied.

From the NYT: “Abigail Seldin, along with a company called FormSwift, has created a free offering called SwiftStudent that helps users draft a formal financial aid appeal letter and coaches them through writing one efficiently and effectively.” 

So what qualifies as a change in financial status? Let a school know if your family has experienced job loss, furloughs, illness, death of a parent, medical expenses, or other hardships.

Just be sure to have documentation to go along with any letters you write and conversions you have. Documentation includes pay stubs, bills, termination letters, and more. 

Check Again for More Merit Aid 

Sometimes, if you haven’t committed by the deadline, other aid opens up. So reach back out to the financial aid and admissions offices to ask if there are new/more opportunities for merit aid.  

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for More Money

Don’t be afraid that a school will take away an offer if you ask for more money–they won’t.  And you won’t know if you can get more until you ask.

Especially now, during these challenging times when family circumstances are constantly shifting. 

Here’s the bottom line: with time, research, and a solid list to follow, you can take control of what may, at first glance, seem like a process that’s stacked in a school’s favor–but actually isn’t.

By following these expert tips, now more than ever you’ll be in the driver’s seat.






Melissa T. Shultz

Melissa T. Shultz is a writer, and the acquisitions editor for Jim Donovan Literary, an agency that represents book authors. She's written about health and parenting for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Reader's Digest, AARP’s The Girlfriend, AARP’s Disrupt Aging, Next Avenue, NBC’s and many other publications. Her memoir/self-help book From Mom to Me Again: How I Survived My First Empty-Nest Year and Reinvented the Rest of My Life was published by Sourcebooks in 2016.